Monday, July 10, 2017

When your Church is the object of lulz

The Vatican released guidelines on the use of gluten in communion hosts.

From an "insider" this wasn't new or surprising. These really aren't new guidelines and they've been how things are for the parishes I've worked for. There has to be the presence of some gluten in the hosts. I'll give my brief take on why in a second.

For me, the real interesting thing is to see what happens when this kind of news hits the wire. Somehow it's deemed worthy of public interest, right at the crossroads of growing instances of gluten allergies, the public perception of Catholic culture and the perceived tension between reason and belief. In other words, are the really arguing about what kind of bread you can use for an antiquated ritual that most of society actively avoids?

The above screenshot is a sampling of reactions from Facebook, where most people selected the "ha ha" response and clarified that reaction in the comments. It's a joke...unless of course you happen to believe it.

It's a window into what constitutes culturally acceptable forms of cultural and religious mockery.

It's an unwillingness to not understand a culture on its own terms, something we're asked to do everywhere else in the world.

It's inadmissible evidence when someone cries "global Christian persecution" in those places that have more to face than cruel but often inoccuous Internet snark as we do here. We'll likely be fine but the people who we try to advocate for will suffer for the last acceptable cultural prejudice in the West.

It's a problem because if we're trying to teach other to be respectful even in our disagreements, then it has to count for everyone.

As to why I think the guideline regarding gluten free hosts is fair, I think there are a host of considerations.

Here's one: the "Incarnational", the nexus point of Christian reflection. The Incarnation is the belief that in Christ, the holy and eternal deity took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Eternity entered history. The sacramental life of the Church is entwined with what Jesus did at a particular time and place in history. Those actions were received by His apostles and perpetuated by them in their successors. There is a clear continuity of practice in our traditions and that helps us maintain our identity.

The use of bread in the Last Supper ties us to that historical moment and, in turn, ties into the Passover celebration of the people of Israel, which was the backdrop of the Last Supper. It ties the universal celebration of the Catholic Mass to our origins, a span of approximately 3,600 years.

Modern culture and modern art rely on traditional symbol systems and often subvert them. But while most traditions that survive may reinterpret signs, they rarely substitute them. The principal behind the bread isn't just bread. It's solidarity and and tradition.

What if someone feels excluded from the Mass by not receiving the host? Here, there are guides who can see the opportunity for growth. The point of the Communion Rite is intimacy with God. That's what the sacraments exist for. It's an expression of solidarity with God and with others. Here, there are people who can help widen our perspective. I think of Simone Weil, who refused baptism throughout her life as an expression of her own unworthiness and as a way to express solidarity with the marginalized so beloved by Jesus. Or St. Mark Ji Tianxiang who, though unable to receive the sacraments for reasons beyond his control, showed great love and reverence for Christ's Presence in the Eucharist precisely through his not being able to receive.

There are certainly more than these but it brings up a final point: we do not know how to talk meaningfully about religion in public discourse.

Secular culture cannot understand a spirituality that transcends our own immediate experiences. The cultural aspects and it's impact on presumed secular values are what tend to matter most.

Christians, in particular, struggle to speak as to be understood. We tend to have a tin ear as to how what we say and how we speak is received by the larger culture. When we are not understood we are too quick to shuffle that misunderstanding into a persecution narrative. Over time we communicate in our own cliches and fail to check our own presumptions. We figure that he battle is won by lingo or sharp rhetoric. We want "likes" from the likeminded rather than the understanding of someone unlike ourselves.

We also struggle to want to understand the culture instead of declaring it irredeemable and hopeless, something that's indispensable if we want to open up our doors to it and they to us.